06 June 2011

Day 6 Climbing Kilimanjaro: To the summit or bust

At exactly 12am we regrouped outside, where a tiny snowfall welcomed us. Once again, this meant higher-than-average air temperature - something we were thankful for. The entire operation began with military precision. We were put in line based on strength, meaning the woman who was still suffering from gastro and feeling quite weak was up front so the rest of us could support, love, and nurture her on the way up. The guides were firm and clear in their instructions, as they should be. After all, most of them had climbed the mountain more than one hundred times.

Like a flash we were heading upward from 4,750 metres at Kibo to 5,895 metres at the summit. From Kibo to Gilman’s Point is mostly a blur. It whizzes by and the only thing on your mind is “step, step, step, right, left, right, left.” My most vivid memory is the heels of the shoes belonging to the woman in front of me. We stop at 2am for a snack and water bottle refill. These breaks must happen at lightning speed, as remaining still for too long lowers your body temperature and makes it near impossible to continue. We stop again at 4am for a similar break, only this time it is much much colder. By 5am we are no longer trekking and are now climbing up what feels like steps. It is not entirely certain, as the absolute darkness leaves visibility at roughly two metres.

Without any real warning, light begins to appear over the eastern horizon. Literally moments later the sign reading “Gilman’s Point” becomes visible. We are there - our first major milestone. Watching the African sun rise over Tanzania and Kenya from above the clouds is an out-of-body experience and by now the entire group is shedding tears of joy, pride, and a touch of relief. We are nearly there and we did it together not just for ourselves but for a great charity.

Now able to see our own footsteps, we begin the two-hour journey to Uhuru Peak - the true roof of Africa. The entire trek is lined with brilliant panoramic views. There are other peaks off in the distance, airplanes flying below where we are currently standing, massive glaciers that are tens of thousands of years old. None of it quite feels real.

Then, just as suddenly, we all reach the sign post marking the summit itself. Breathtaking is the only word that accurately describes how you feel at that moment. Somehow, I managed to rustle up enough energy to jump in the air before huddling the entire group together for a group picture, the same way we started this epic journey.

Because it is so high (5,895 metres), we are only able to stay at the summit for 20 minutes before beginning our descent back down to Kibo. This return happens at a near lightning pace as you literally ski down the loose volcanic scree rock, Mawenzi peak off in the distance. In a matter of what seems like minutes (thought it is actually still several hours) we are back at Kibo where we de-summit our wardrobe before hopping into bed for a two-hour nap. Upon waking we quickly pack our bags, gear up with our wet weather layer on the outside (a must-have item) to combat the light rain, eat another massive meal, and hit the trail.

It is three hours to Horombo, where we will camp for the night. Whether it is exhaustion, relief, or happiness that drives us down that mountain I do not know but the freedom to move as fast as you like (now we are going downhill, after all) and the solace of knowing you have done it somehow carries your beyond-tired body onward. We reach camp, set up house in our tents for the very last time, recount the entire experience over a slightly smaller dinner, toast with a glass of African red wine, and are in bed by 8pm, marking the end of our 36-hour (19 of those walking) journey to the summit with just one day of walking left ahead of us.


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